Curated by Noorjehan Bilgrami and Mohammad Zeeshan, the show features works of 16 artists from Sindh
On July 20, 1969, the American astronaut Neill Armstrong, putting his left foot on moon, declared: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” The much-quoted phrase resurfaces during the exhibition Mera Safar, a project of Karachi’s Koel Gallery, currently at Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery, NCA, Lahore (November 5-19, 2020). Curated by Noorjehan Bilgrami and Mohammad Zeeshan, the show comprises 30 works by 16 artists, who belong to Sindh.
The choice of Lahore, may have other reasons, but all participants (except Musarrat Mirza, who studied at the Fine Art Department of the University of the Punjab) were once students at the NCA. Their alma mater seems a natural venue to host this exhibition, which – in its catalogue, documents their journey, but in its display, marks their arrival. Safar (journey) of a single person – a boy or girl, from Hyderabad, Larkana, Mehrabpur, Mirpurkhas, to Lahore, that not only transformed young students and changed their families but also altered the art of Pakistan, and opened international art world to them. Thus a small step, leaving one’s surroundings in Sindh for the art institute in Lahore, turned into a great leap, in multiple directions.
Perhaps the curators’ aim is to remember and restructure the day to day, year to year and decade to decade account of these artists, who have similar histories, but later grew into unique personalities with diverse, often distant, approaches in their art. The exhibition, to a viewer addicted to thematic shows, might appear lacking coherence, since there is a disparity among artists in terms of their concerns, imagery, technique – and vision. There is one, overarching link between individuals like Musarrat Mirza, RM Naeem, Imran Qureshi, Abdul Jabbar Gull, Mohammad Ali Talpur, Munawar Ali Syed, Waseem Ahmed, Ayaz Jokhio, Imran Channa, Rehana Mangi and Noor Ali Chagani. It is their place of origin, Sindh.
However, the exhibition does not project the ‘Sindh card.’ Instead, it provides insights on the making of an artist in which early contacts, chance encounters, unfavourable situations and family pressures play major parts. For an outsider, the exhibition could be a patronising venture to showcase success stories of artists from a backward region, who first made it to Lahore, and then to the art world – local and global; something along the lines of The Other Story, the 1989-90 exhibition at Hayward Gallery, London, presenting works of “Asian, African, and Caribbean artists in post-war Britain”. Curated by Rasheed Araeen, the show was criticised for shade of marginalisation. For its alleged tokenism,
Anish Kapoor refused to participate; not to be identified with periphery. However, today one realises that had this show not taken place, the rise of many artists from former colonies, especially Anwar Jalal Shemza, into mainstream art would not have been possible. In that sense, art initiatives, like “technologies” according to Alberto Manguel, “are often, always perhaps, diverted from their original intentions”. About the invention of writing in Mesopotamia, Manguel says: “The earliest examples of writing we have … are two small tablets that record a certain number of goats or sheep: the receipts.” But starting with a pragmatic purpose, soon “writing became, to a large extent, the place that not only recorded our world but also created it”. It generated literature, something as everlasting as the epic of Gilgamesh.
One must not confine Mera Safar to a provincial identity, because historically ‘Sindh’ has included the entire present-day Pakistan. Medieval Arabs divided the Indian Subcontinent into Hind and Sindh. Area on both sides of Indus (Sindhu, or Sindh River in local tongues) was known as Sindh. So Mera Safar may not be about a province, but the river that flows from Skardu and travels across mainland Pakistan. The receives waters from many sources, gathers debris, collects silt, changes its pace, course, width, and speed till it meets waters of the Arabian Sea; which merge with the waters of all seas, because more than ‘workers of the world’, it is waters of the world that are united.
One must not confine Mera Safar to a provincial identity, because historically ‘Sindh’ has referred to the entire region that is now Pakistan.
The exhibition, echoing the passage of Indus River, maps a movement in opposite direction: south to north. Some of the artists coming from Sindh province to the capital of Punjab started by working as an apprentice for a cinema hoarding painter, studying drawing with an ustad, copying pictures, trying to make craft objects. From such ordinary beginnings, these individuals emerged into celebrated names, with works included in art fairs, biennales, and triennials; and part of prestigious collections at museums around the world.
How did this happen? Along with works on display, the exhibition catalogue offers an in-depth understanding. The artists’ candid conversations with Nimra Khan reveal unheard/unknown details about their formative years. These insights are important to comprehending the unique aesthetics of these creative persons.
For example, one traces Ayaz Jokhio’s text based conceptual works, sparse in Pakistani art, to his experience as a sub-editor for a local newspaper in his home town. The association with language – as source of meaning, would resurface in his work in later years. However, more than this comfortable connection, the choice of visuals in his recent canvases, photographic – almost press pictures, could be linked to that earlier engagement with print media. In the same manner, going through some artists’ life stories and their fascination and involvement with cinema board paintings, one discerns the presence of ultra-realistic imagery in the paintings of RM Naeem, and Abdul Jabbar Gull. Due to the phantasmagorical settings of film narratives, movie posters and hoardings had a magic feel, some of which may be spotted in the art of these two and others.
Likewise, Munawar Ali Syed, Waseem Ahmed, and a few more, mostly from Hyderabad, who joined their first art classes at the Iranian Cultural Centre, still recall the impact and support of their teachers, who initiated them into the intricacy of image-making although how much of the early upbringing, exposure and guidance has remained in their later works is contested. For instance, Waseem Ahmed has evolved a distinct pictorial language, ingrained in history, but not inspired or copied from any immediate sample/master. Similarly, Munawar Ali Syed has produced works which have a distant – but no direct bond with his past endeavours.
For some participants, the catalogue contributes in contextualising their practices, such as Noor Ali Chagani, who “used to live in Aisha Manzil, in a building called Al Nazar. The building opposite it was a visual cage, with so many balconies”. Leaving Karachi and arriving in Lahore, he “noticed the difference in the experience of living on the ground and being hung in the air”. This childhood observation has seeped in his constructions of bricks, plaster blocks, walls, and raw high-rise structures on a miniature scale.
Almost all these artists, showing at Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery, have followed an identical pattern in their careers: leaving Sindh to join the NCA at Lahore, before attaining fame and respect. It connects them to the person who has lent his name to the Gallery; Zahoor ul Akhlaq moved from Karachi, studied at the NCA, and became the most important artist of his generation. In a sense, Mera Safar’ is a homage to the ‘master’, by transcribing lives of his followers, who similarly left their homes for other destinations, like Ulysses of Odyssey; only to recognise in the end that each creative person (or writer, in the words of Salman Rushdie) resides in his language – the language of art in this case.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore